Dr. Prerna Agarwal

Prerna Agarwal is currently a Gerda Henkel fellow at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Göttingen University. She is a historian specialising in the fields of labour history and modern South Asia. Previously, she was LSE fellow at the Economic History Department, London School of Economics, and has taught at Ashoka University and Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. She completed her doctorate at King’s College London (KCL) in 2018, which forms the basis of a forthcoming manuscript on labour radicalism in Calcutta’s docklands, c. 1920 – 1960.

Research interests:
labour history
history of capitalism and colonialism
economic and social history
urban history
Indian Ocean World

Project description: India’s Long Emergency: The Postcolonial State, Labour and the Railway Strike of 1974.
The Railway Strike of 1974, the last general strike on the Indian railways involved over two million workers and brought the national economy to a standstill. At once, the strike became a visible and powerful symbol of India in crisis. In June 1975, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Congress Party declared the state of Emergency, marking a turning point in India’s postcolonial history. Yet the two events have not been placed in one historical frame. The historical processes that congealed to produce a profound break in Indian politics — from democracy to authoritarianism remain largely unexamined. Through a ‘long’ history of the Emergency, with a central focus on railway labour, this project will unfold one of the multiple crises of the postcolonial state of which the Emergency was symptomatic — that of state-making vis-a-vis the labour question. In doing so, it clarifies the place of labour in postcolonial politics, at the same time, as illuminating the character of the developmentalist state in India as a historical formation. More broadly, it includes a comparative perspective and thus illuminates the dynamics of the expansion of postcolonial states’ ambit towards labour welfarism, as well as its recourse to open authoritarianism. The project stands at the interface between – modern South Asian history, global labour history, and the history of crisis and dictatorship in the Third World.

1. In the Name of Constitutionalism and Islam: The Murky World of Labour Politics in Calcutta’s Docklands, 1930s. In: In Defence of Freedom: Corporate Policing, Yellow Unionism, and Strikebreaking, 1890-1930. Eds. Millan, Matteo and Saluppo, Alessandro (London: Routledge, 2020),134-152.
2. The War at the Workplace: Calcutta’s Dockworkers and Changing Labour Regime, 1939–1945. International Review of Social History, 1-28, 2022. doi:10.1017/S0020859022000013
3. Decolonisation in Docklands: Moments of Labour in Late 1940s Calcutta. forthcoming in: International Labour and Working Class History (Forthcoming).
4. Dock Labour and a Connected History of Workers in Early Twentieth Century Calcutta, Journal of Indian Ocean World Studies, vol. 6 no. 2, 2022.
5. ‘The Government Will Come to its Senses’: Calcutta Workers and the Plague of 1898. The India Forum (1 May 2020). Also published in: The Pandemic in India: Essays from The India Forum. Ed. Reddy, C. Rammanohar (Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2021).
6. Review of, Gyan Prakash, Emergency Chronicles. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019) and Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, India’s First Dictatorship. (London: Hurst, 2020), for Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales,2, 2022.